By Piper Hutchinson
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE—With the state flush with cash, Gov. John Bel Edwards unveiled a proposed budget Monday that includes more than $1.1 billion in infrastructure spending and investments in education at all levels.
“I think we have once in a generation, and maybe once in a lifetime opportunity in some respects, to move our state forward,” Edwards said.
He outlined his budget priorities at a news conference at the Capitol. The budget is for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and the state has lots of money to spend following federal pandemic relief and higher-than-expected state tax revenues.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne will present the plan on Tuesday to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. The Legislature will decide by June what the final bill looks like.
Edwards’ plan includes $1.1 billion for critical infrastructure. The two biggest-ticket items are a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, which would be funded partly by $500 million from the state, and statewide improvements to water and sewage systems, which will also cost $500 million.
The plan also includes $100 million for the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles.
Edwards shared a question he was asked during his monthly radio show. “For decades, Louisiana has been on the top of too many bad lists and the bottom of too many bad lists. How do we get off the bottom of those lists?”
His answer to that: education. “Education cures a lot of ills,” Edwards said.
The governor’s proposal includes significant investments in education at all levels. The plan calls for a pay raise of at least $1,500 for K-12 teachers and a $750 pay raise for support staff. It also includes $43.4 million for early childhood education.
Edwards proposed $31.7 million for faculty pay raises and another $97.2M for higher education funding, including money to open Title IX offices, which adjudicate charges of sexual harassment and assault, throughout the state.
The plan also calls for $550 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to replenish the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which was depleted during the course of the pandemic.
That investment would bring the fund back up to the statutory requirement of $750 million, Edwards said. Using the federal funds avoids triggering a tax on all businesses, he said.
Edwards said $108.9 million would be set aside for deferred maintenance of public buildings.
The state had a $1 billion surplus in the last fiscal year. After constitutional requirements are met, there will be about $400 million to be spent at the Legislature’s discretion.
At the time the surplus was announced, Dardenne indicated that about $133 million would go to deferred maintenance, but due to greater-than-expected transportation needs, they are calling for slightly less.
Edwards emphasized that he wanted to use these one-time funds only for one-time expenditures, unlike the Jindal administration, which frequently used one-time funds to take care of recurring expenditures.
“The first budget that I inherited, the last six months of that budget year, more than $800 million in one-time money plugged in for recurring expenditures,” Edwards said. “We didn’t, and we don’t, want to create those types of problems again.”
Edwards said that he believes that the budget is one the Legislature could easily support.
Republican legislators created a plan last year to start spending more money on roads and bridges. Earlier this month, Senate President Page Cortez indicated support for using some of the $1.6 billion excess on the state’s infrastructure problems, including deferred maintenance on public buildings.
Cortez also told the USA Today Network that he supports using these one-time funds for infrastructure projects.
“Traditionally we haven’t had money dedicated annually to infrastructure projects so when we get a surplus, I consider that a priority for a one-time investment that will continue to pay dividends for decades,” Cortez said.
All in all, Edwards seemed optimistic about the budget. “I am extremely bullish on the future of Louisiana,” Edwards said. “I think the budget proposal that we just unveiled supports being bullish on the future of Louisiana.”
Photo credit and caption: Gov. John Bel Edwards on Monday proposed substantial spending increases on infrastructure and higher education. Photo by Piper Hutchinson/LSU Manship School News Service.